KNOXVILLE — When the Petrojvic Blasting Company begins work, it's blasting music on the street rather than damaging the landscape.
"Our sound is determined by the instruments we have," says band member Brandon Armstrong, who plays a type of tuba called the helicon. "And our instruments are chosen by their loudness and mobility. It's perfect for jazz and Balkan music."
The band features accordion, trombone, trumpet, helicon and drums. The band's usual mode of operation is to play on the street and then, in the cold months at least, lure the crowd indoors to wherever a show is booked. The group's play list consists of old-time jazz and pop tunes, and Eastern European folk music — all filtered through the band's own Gypsy sensibility.
"Our audience is typically whoever is walking by," Armstrong says. "It's the people you don't normally see at venues."
Armstrong grew up in Knoxville and played trombone in his high school band. He joined Knoxville klezmer greats Dor L'Dor, which was his first introduction to Eastern European sounds.
"I fell in love with it instantly," Armstrong says. "Then I started going deeper."
When Armstrong moved to Murfreesboro to attend Middle Tennessee State University, he ran into brothers Justin and Josh Petrojvic, who were playing on the street in nearby Nashville, where the siblings had grown up.
"Our mother was a dancer and did a lot of folk dancing," Justin Petrojvic says. "Although that wasn't the kind of music we started playing, that's sort of where the seeds were planted."
Early on, Josh and Justin formed a group called Albania Mania, which incorporated Eastern European music. Justin lived in Knoxville while attending the University of Tennessee.
"My brother and I started traveling, and we didn't have any money to start traveling, but we had instruments, so we'd play on the street and it sort of took off," Justin Petrojvic says. "And as long as people don't run us out of town, it's OK."
The act broke apart for two years when Josh moved to Spain to study the country's music and Justin moved to Los Angeles. In 2008, the two decided whether Justin would move to Spain or Josh would move to Los Angeles by a long-distance game of chess. Justin won. When Josh returned, he brought along a Portugal native who became the group's first trumpeter. Armstrong joined the group in Los Angeles.
The move turned out to be fortuitous.
"Los Angeles actually has lots of Yugoslavians and Serbians," Armstrong says.
The band also found some fans who were established in the music industry: Chris Phillips of the Squirrel Nut Zippers used the group for music that ended up in the film Burlesque. The group also met a lot of enthusiastic fans, some of whom gave the band good connections when it traveled to Eastern Europe to perform.
Petrojvic says Eastern Europeans were far less concerned that the musicians played pieces correctly than they were that the players were having a good time.
"When people noticed that we were trying too hard to be correct, they'd stop us and say something like, 'Think of yourself dancing. As long as you're having fun playing, then somebody (in the audience) will be dancing.'"